Editor's note: In this story, you’ll hear from several local Black athletes from different sports, different walks of life and different generations. They each describe their own experiences of watching Black lives taken by police and how they feel directly tied to each case both on and off the field.
CINCINNATI — “It was like a double life.”
When NFL player Spencer Ware thinks back to his high school football days at Princeton High School, he said he remembers living two different lifestyles: one where he’s an athletic star and the other where he’s a Black man.
“One moment, I'm at the game,” Ware said. “And the white fans, the white people, are cheering for me like they love me.”
Things would quickly shift for Ware on his walk home from the game. He said police officers would often stop him, questioning everything from where he was going to why he was covered in dirt. Ware said his first instinct was to go into survival mode, unsure if he would make it home.
It’s an instinct, he said, that’s carried over to his professional career.
“I get the messages [like]: 'Go back to Africa, your mom’s a monkey... I bet my grandfather raped y'all,’” Ware said. “The same people who show up to the games, I’ve literally ran into the same people.”
Ware’s experience is one that, long-time sports psychologist Dr. Ken Washington said, is common among Black athletes.
“In some ways, [fans] put them on a pedestal in a particular situation, but they don't see them for who they really are until they get off the field, or they cease to perform,” Washington said.
It’s normal for Black athletes to use sports as an escape from the racism they may face off the field," Washington said. But after watching Black lives taken at the hands of police, such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd this year, he said, the “escape” is dwindling.
“It's very stressful,” Washington said. “It can basically chip away at your own coping strategies, especially when you depend upon those coping strategies to keep you healthy.”
Professional volleyball player and former University of Cincinnati athlete Jordan Thompson said she couldn’t get herself to watch the viral video of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot several times by a police officer.
“I've sometimes been going to practice and I'm still feeling just the weight of everything that’s going on,” Thompson said. “My dad was telling me about how he would get stopped for driving while Black and for just stupid things like having an air freshener hanging from his rear-view mirror… That's the thing, like everyday you wake up, you never know. Is it gonna be somebody in your family?”
Thompson’s feelings are nothing new, but something felt among Black athletes for decades, according to George Wilson, 1964 NBA Gold Medalist and former University of Cincinnati NCAA champion.
“I knew then as well as today,” Wilson said, “that being Black in America, sitting Black, walking Black, running Black, driving Black, you always have a chance of one of those police officers deciding I'm gonna pull him over for blank reason.”
Author and sports journalist John Erardi described a moment when one of Wilson’s UC teammates, Oscar Robertson, tried to speak out on his experiences of racism publicly.
“Oscar Robertson said something in a Sports Illustrated piece,” Erardi said. “He said, in some cases, he couldn't go into clubs with his white teammates [and that] he didn't feel welcome.”
Soon after the piece was published, Erardi said, Robertson was called into his coach’s office and told he wasn’t allowed to say those things.
“[For George Wilson], if he would have spoken out that way in 1962, it could have been the end of his world,” Erardi said.
It's been troubling, Erardi said, to see the backlash against Black athletes who express their concerns with race relations across the country. Erardi said Joe Morgan, of the Big Red Machine, would often use a Maya Angelou quote:
“He said, ‘People will remember nothing of what you say, a little of what you do, and everything about how you make them feel,' And these athletes have made us feel great... why can't I feel good about you off the court?”
Hear reporter Jasmine Minor discuss this story on the Hear Cincinnati podcast player above.